Ono’s lasting influence on contemporary music cannot be overlooked.
At any point in her incredibly lengthy career as an avant garde artist in the truest sense of the word, Yoko Ono has been a polarizing figure. Forever linked with John Lennon, this has proven both an artistic blessing and a curse as her uncompromising work was brought to the attention of countless less-than-open-minded listeners via the Beatles connection. Had she been allowed to develop as the underground pioneer that she is and always has been, however, and forgone the patronage of Lennon and his coterie of musically adventurous associates it’s quite likely we would not be talking about her in any sort of relevant capacity more than half a century after she first came to public consciousness. So, for the vast majority of self-proclaimed Beatlemaniacs, Ono will always be seen as a black mark on the group’s career, one which became so pronounced that she would forever be (incorrectly) blamed for the dissolution of one of the most beloved pop groups in history.
On her own, she’s always pushed the limits of musical possibilities. Without her creative influence, Lennon, one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, would never have pushed his own music into such divisive territory as on Two Virgins or even “Revolution #9.” Of the pair, she’s proven to be the most interesting and continually relevant as a creative force. Now 85, Ono is still as active as ever, having put out nearly a dozen albums this century alone. Her latest, Warzone, allows her to revisit some of her past work from a lyrically thematic standpoint, recasting each in a more low-key (relatively speaking) setting, much as Paul Simon did recently with In the Blue Light. “Now or Never” dates back to 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe, while the playful “Children Power” and “I Love You Earth” originally appeared on 1985’s Starpeace.
Of these revisitations, the most interesting is the innately polarizing “Why,” a track which first appeared on her 1970 masterpiece Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Consisting of little more than prolonged vocalizations of the titular question, it allows Ono to inject the single word with an unprecedented amount of emotion, her voice rising and falling in a series of dramatically rendered ululations. While not quite as chaotic as the original, it’s nonetheless an unsettling listening experience, made all the more so by the claustrophobia-inducing arrangement. It doesn’t quite surpass the original, but it certainly still feels as relevant a protest anthem now as it did at the height of the Vietnam conflict.
And it’s this peacenik persona that continues to shine through on Warzone, an album that consists of songs that span decades, wars, administrations and generations, yet still rings true with everything happening in the world today. “Woman Power,” in particular, taps into the #metoo movement with stunning relevancy. The fact that it first appeared on 1973’s Feeling the Space, released during the women’s liberation movement, and yet remains just as germane today is a sad commentary on society’s continued subjugation of women.
Sadly, her cover of her late husband’s anthem “Imagine” is the one song here likely to garner the most attention. Her read is emotionally resonant and reverential, underscored by sparse instrumental backing and a series of drones that help make the words themselves the central focus – something that was obviously the original intent but lost in the fact that it was another single from a former Beatle. Those who’ve long maligned Ono will continue to do so, likely finding her reading slanderous or worse. But their misplaced vitriol flies in the face of the song’s plea for a more tolerant, loving society.
Warzone is by no means a career-defining achievement, but it serves as a lovingly-rendered summation of a career that has long deserved more positive attention than it has received. Love her or loathe her, Yoko Ono’s lasting influence on contemporary music cannot be overlooked. Warzone is a testament both to that and to her steadfast adherence to the belief that someday our crazy, fucked-up world may still manage to live as one.